Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz
A Review by Alan Gomberg
Most theatrical-songwriting teams don't last all that long, not even the most successful ones. The great exception - with the emphasis on great - is John Kander and Fred Ebb. No other major team has worked together for so long with such success.
The new book Colored Lights (Faber and Faber), subtitled Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz, provides us with Kander and Ebb's thoughts on their work. For this oral history they were interviewed by Greg Lawrence, the author of Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins. Each of the team's Broadway shows is discussed, as well as major revivals and film work.
In an utterly unpretentious way, this book provides wonderful insights into the process of putting a musical together and, in particular, Kander and Ebb's collaborative process. We learn that this is a pair who trusts their instincts and, unlike some other major musical-theatre writers of the present and past, they tend to write quickly. The more we read, the more it becomes clear that Kander and Ebb's individual personalities have given their collaboration its particular flavor.
Anyone hoping to find lots of nasty dish will be disappointed. Even when Kander and Ebb have something negative to say about someone, they tend not to dwell on it. This may be because most of the people whom they discuss are alive, but I think it's just that neither of them focuses excessively on the negative.
That's not to say that either of them is relentlessly positive about everyone and everything. They have some trenchant things to say on the current state of the musical theatre. And among the many personalities discussed, Bob Fosse's paranoia and unpleasantness, which they see as having become much worse after the heart attack that delayed the original production of Chicago, come across vividly. As you would expect, they also praise Fosse's brilliance, but the stories they tell about him may make you wonder how people put up with him.
As for Harvey Weinstein, the producer of the film version of Chicago, they don't seem to have much fondness for him at all. There are occasional negative comments about a few other people, but in general they focus on the positive sides of the people with whom they've worked.
It's not surprising that there is a good deal of discussion of Liza Minnelli - most of it adulatory, some of it quite candid and personal.
Minnelli herself has written the book's introduction, and it is more or less what you'd expect: sometimes rather eloquent, sometimes a bit muddled, but always appreciative and endearing.
Minnelli suggests that what Kander and Ebb are saying in the book is, "We did all of that work, but we didn't necessarily know what layers of meaning would be found in our work at the time that we created it." This disinclination to analyze their work is something they discuss in these pages. I do wish that Lawrence had prodded Kander and Ebb to probe a little more deeply into their work. A bit more discussion of those layers of meaning would have made the book more valuable.
There are some mildly frustrating aspects to the book: several mistakes that should have been corrected, and a few remarks that beg for clarification. Even though the transcript is intended to represent what was actually said, there are places where it should have been edited more artfully. Also, an index would have been welcome.
Still, this is a delightful and often fascinating book that will surely give great pleasure to anyone who loves the work of these talented men. It is easy to see what has made their collaboration last so long: They both enjoy writing songs, and they feel genuinely confident in their respect and affection for each other. In fact, in this book John Kander and Fred Ebb come across as two of the most charming and likeable people you could ever hope to meet.
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